Discovery Set: The Rhetoric of Fear

Social movements can only progress if people first come to believe something new, and then take action. Changing someone's thinking can be a challenge, but motivating them to action is even more difficult. The documents in this Discovery Set use heightened language to persuade readers they are in some kind of peril and must take action. They are drawn from a wide range of patriotic, public health, moral, economic, and political causes.

A rhetoric of fear warns, "You're vulnerable." "You're in danger!" "You're under attack!" This message may or may not be true, and the motivation for using such language can be well-intentioned or nefarious.

Fear can shake people out of complacency. It can fill them with a sense of urgency in times of crisis, such as during an infectious epidemic or a war.

But feeling frightened can also lead people to make emotional, rather than rational decisions. Then they may become vulnerable to manipulation from charlatans or demagogues. An appeal to fear can be used to distract a community from the real source of trouble, as people seek a common enemy to blame.

Paradoxically, fear can also be used to stimulate people to inaction, as they feel themselves in danger they are helpless to combat. Then they may turn to a strong leader who promises to protect them or solve their problems. Or they may simply believe there is no solution, or no way of knowing it, and then become paralyzed.

As you read through the documents in this Discovery Set, think about the language that's used and the person or persons employing that rhetoric. Try to identify the specific words the writer uses to get you to lay reason aside.

Who or what is the threat? What action are you being asked to take? Do these appeals raise ethical or moral questions?  

For further reading: 

How the “Daisy” ad changed everything about political advertising Smithsonian Institution. 

Glassner, B. (2018). The Culture of fear. Why Americans are afraid of the wrong things, (rev. ed.). New York: Basic Books. 

Fairchild, A. L., Bayer, R. Green, S. H. (2018). The two faces of fear: A history of hard-hitting public health campaigns against tobacco and AIDS. American Journal of Public Health (published online August 8, 2018).

Discovery Set: The Rhetoric of Fear